“Invitation to Hell” (1984)

Like last week’s Deadly Lessons, the setting of 1984’s Invitation to Hell is so dated as to be almost quaint. It’s an exclusive country club, and while in the superficial, wealth driven 80s membership in such an establishment was one of the most highly prized, ostentatious indicators that one had “made it,” in the more politically correct 21st century it’s seen as rather tacky and passé. We’re much more understated with our microaggressions these days, darling.

Nevertheless, indulge yourself in the comforting warm cheese that is Invitation to Hell, directed by Wes Craven and airing six months before the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street. It wastes no time in getting down to business, opening with Susan Lucci, after being accidentally run over by a limousine, making a finger gun gesture at the driver and roasting him alive.

That happens literally within the first minute and a half, even before the credits, and unfortunately it ends up being the highlight of the movie, and never happens again. I’d happily watch a feature length movie where someone just walks around killing people with their finger, but alas, we must have a plot foisted upon us. This involves Matt Winslow (the ever reliable Robert Urich, R.I.P.), who, after struggling as an inventor for several years, gets a plum new job, allowing him and his family, which includes wife Patricia (Joanna Cassidy) and two cute kids (played by Punky Brewster‘s Soleil Moon Frye and The Neverending Story‘s Barret Oliver)  to move into a neighborhood that looks suspiciously like Cuesta Verde, where the Freelings live in Poltergeist.

 

Matt’s job is with Micro-Digitech, a mysterious company that seems to deal in computer equipment, space suits, and flame throwers. Everyone at Micr0-Digitech is vaguely creepy and secretive, but, distracted by finally getting recognition for his inventions, he thinks nothing of it at first. The Winslows are in their new house barely a week before Patricia starts becoming obsessed with appearances, nagging Matt into redecorating their entire house and insisting that they join the local country club, unfortunately named Steaming Springs, which is the primary, if not only social center of the whole town. The club, as is mentioned ad infinitum, is where the “top tops” and “everyone who’s anyone” spend much of their lives, and Matt is heavily recruited by virtually every single person he encounters, including the club’s director, Jessica Jones (Susan Lucci), who eyes Matt like a bucket of extra crispy KFC the moment she meets him.

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Despite the lure of prestige (and probably the best mimosas money can buy), Matt is uninterested, and maybe even a little afraid of the idea of becoming a club member, particularly once weird things start happening, like his secretary disappearing, and his catching a club member’s kid watching Nazi footage on television with a predatory grin on his face.

On the other hand, completely taken in by the compliments Jessica lays on thicker than Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread (and not at all put off by talk of “initiations,” or the fact that everybody in the club seems to know who they are already), Patricia is more than eager to become a “top top.” However, Jessica, working that ’84 blue eye shadow and Motley Crue video red lipstick like no one’s business, is far more interested in Matt, telling him “I’ll see to it personally that your membership here is as pleasurable as possible.”

The interesting thing is that there’s really no twist in this movie–Steaming Springs is the gateway to Hell, and Jessica is the Devil. I mean, it’s right there in the title. Nobody who’s already a member does anything to hide that anything untoward is going on, as exhibited when Matt’s boss (Kevin McCarthy) tells him, with the same “I don’t know if I want to eat you or fuck you” expression as the Nazi footage kid, “I look forward to your becoming…one of us.” The suspense comes from Matt figuring out what the audience already knows, and whether or not he’ll be able to protect his family from the temptation of a satanic health spa.

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Surprise–he won’t. Patricia and the kids join the club without Matt, and are almost immediately initiated in a ritual that involves their donning hotel bathrobes and walking into what looks like an enormous steam room from which infernal moans and wails emit, presumably trading in their very souls for that coveted membership. It’s important to point out that these are the benefits that making a pact with the Devil in order to join Steaming Springs will get you:

  • a Halloween party
  • a gym pass
  • getting to socialize with the same co-workers and neighbors you see every day
  • the swimming pool has a diving board

Wow, membership really does have its privileges! Anyway, after the initiation, the kids start acting spooky, and Patricia, having gotten her own MTV video vixen makeover, tries to have the family dog (who can sense evil, obvs.) put to sleep. Matt does a little investigating into the club, and discovers that everyone in his company who’s gotten a promotion is a member of Steaming Springs, including his best pal, Tommy (Joe Regalbuto), who tries to sell him on joining the club with the same genial pushiness as that one Facebook friend everyone has who swears that essential oils can cure migraines.

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When Matt comes home to find his now possessed daughter mutilating her beloved stuffed bunny and speaking in a hilarious “demonic” voice (she sounds like Froggy from the Little Rascals), he decides to rescue her and the rest of his family’s souls from Jessica’s malevolent clutches. Luckily, part of his new job just happens to be designing a space suit that’s not just heat resistant, but also has a built in laser gun and flamethrower, and a helmet that can detect non-human life forms. He dons the suit and enters Hell through the giant steam room. Hell initially looks like the cover art for a prog rock album, until Matt discovers that everyone’s souls are trapped in their houses in an alternate universe version of the town.

It turns out that it’s actually pretty easy to not just save your family from eternal damnation, but defeat the Devil herself. All Matt has to do is remind Patricia of the love they have for each other, the spell is almost instantly broken, and Jessica disappears. The family is returned to their real home, which is somehow back in its pre-redecorating state, and discover that Steaming Springs is now a steaming pile, after it burned to the ground overnight. Now, you might think that, having confronted the literal face of evil, and aware that virtually everyone they know is one of her minions, Matt and his family would immediately get in their car and leave town with only the clothes on their backs. But no, they just smile and go back inside their bland suburban house to have breakfast. The end.

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Given that whizbanger of an opening scene, it’s a letdown that Invitation to Hell never again reaches that level of zaniness. It wants to try to be a family drama about what happens when one half of a couple craves the opulent lifestyle she thinks they’re entitled to, while the other half just wants to maintain a quiet, humble existence, and it doesn’t really manage that. It also wants to be a keen satire on the status obsessed 80s, with characters who would quite literally give up not only their own souls, but the souls of their innocent children, for what seems to be little more than what being a member of Bally’s Fitness can get you. Nobody appears to be enjoying their club privileges much, either, constantly sniping at each other, participating in a presumably neverending membership drive, and cringing in fear at the idea of displeasing Jessica. Sounds great, where do I sign up?

Despite making her mark as playing one of soap opera’s greatest villainesses, Susan Lucci is disappointingly restrained as Jessica. The role calls for some Tim Curry flavored ham salad, and yet she mostly lets her outfits, makeup and increasingly large hair (by the end it just looks like it was styled with a hand mixer) do the talking. We’ve established that she can brutally kill a guy without even touching him, yet is just whiny and petulant when Matt refuses to choose her over his family, spinning around a few times and then disappearing in a ball of flame. If she can’t have the man she wants, then by golly she’ll…quietly go away.

Nevertheless, like Patty Duke in Amityville: the Evil Escapes, Robert Urich made the wise decision to play his role straight, giving what could have been a standard dull hero a surprising amount of depth and warmth. Even before he’s clued in to all this gateway to Hell stuff, he seems uneasy in his new surroundings, and one wonders how good of a movie Invitation to Hell could have been if it focused on something different and far more scarier–the knowledge that you’re stuck someplace where you don’t belong.

Original airdate: May 24, 1984

Watch it here

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